BEST MATES: Members of the light Horse Brigade astride their Walers in the Middle East,
BEST MATES: Members of the light Horse Brigade astride their Walers in the Middle East, contributed

Horses saved Diggers’ lives

THE 2011 Steven Spielberg's movie called War Horse helped highlight the important and heroic part played by the horse in the First World War.

The film tells a true story about a young boy called Albert Narracott, of Devon, England, whose father Ted sells his favourite horse to the British army and how they link up again during the Great War.

As Spielberg said: "Through the eyes of a beast, moviegoers see the horrors of humanity overcome by beauty, and honor and love".

This film has an impact on horse lovers and helps remind Australians of our own horses that played such an important part with our Anzacs in the desert campaigns of the First World War.

In 1914, the British army had a cavalry of 25,000 horses but needed another 500,000 to use as a medium of transport, hauling artillery, for ambulances and cavalry charges.

They sought imports from America which supplied them with thousands but, because of the high casualties, they sent out an appeal to Australia to buy our horses.

The Australian horses were sturdy beasts able to travel long distances with little water so they became the preferred military horse.

They were known as "Walers" because they were imported from New South Wales, but many came from other states.

From 1915 to 1918 over 100,000 were sent to Alexandra in Egypt when the first batch to Gallipoli was considered unsuitable owing to the Turkish terrain.

Although 100,000 left Australian shores during the war, only one ever returned to Australia.

This horse, Sandy, was the personal mount of Major General Sir William Bridges.

He was one of 6100 horses shipped to Gallipoli with the First AIF, but after the general died of wounds, Sandy was sent to Alexandra in Egypt to be looked after by Captain Les Whitfield of the Royal Australian Veterinary Corps, before being sent to France in 1916.

In 1917 defence minister Senator George Pearce called for Sandy to be returned home, and sent to graze in the paddocks of the Royal Military College at Duntroon.

He arrived in Melbourne in 1917 aboard the freighter Booral but never went to Duntroon.

Instead, he spent the next few years at the Central Remount Depot in Melbourne before having to be put down in 1923 because of old age and illness.

In France, cavalry charges were not really carried out because of trench warfare and the terrible toll on the horses by the incessant shelling by the Germans and the extremely hard work in pulling gun carriages through the mud.

Possibly the last cavalry charge by the British was in 1918 at the battle of Mons when 150 horses were used to charge the German lines but only four survived the shelling and deadly machine gun fire from the German lines.

Horses proved very valuable in the desert warfare of the Middle East campaigns.

The 4th Light Horse Brigade, under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel, performed the last cavalry charge in history when they stormed the Turkish defences at Beersheba Wells on October 31, 1917.

The Light Horse had ridden many miles over desert country to take the important Beersheba water holes as the horses carried an estimated weight of 120kg in equipment as well as the rider, and were quickly needing water.

They had already trekked may miles over the desert, however, their horses responded magnificently in the charge which was all over very quickly. Chauvel's forces used their bayonets as sabres and fired from the saddle.

The Light Horsemen showed real Anzac courage, inflicting heavy casualties on the retreating Turks, capturing 1000 prisoners as well as securing this vital water holes for their horses.

The Anzac casualties included 31 killed, 36 wounded, and 70 horses lost.

It came as a devastating blow to men of the Light Horse when in 1918, at the end of the war, they had to surrender their horses as they could not be brought back to Australia because of very strict quarantine laws.

The Australian Government decided to sell 11,000 to India, 2000 were destroyed for being too old or because of sickness and many were given up to be used as meat for the local population.

Anzacs who had been with their horses for years had to say "goodbye" to what they saw as their best mate who had been through very difficult times.

The horse was not only a mate, but had provided transport, protection and warmth at night, and on many occasions had saved the life of its owner.

Many Anzacs shot their horse rather than see it taken away to an uncertain future.

It has been estimated that eight million horses from both sided died in the war such was the exposure that they were to artillery and machine-gun fire.

Since the ending of the First World War, mechanised transport has taken over from the horse and it is possible that horses will never again be used to such an extent in future wars.

In conclusion, let it be said that in the horrors of war the noble horse stood out as a colourful, but tragic creature, and can go down in the annals of military history in Australia from the Boer War of 1900 at Eland River, to the desert campaigns in Egypt 17 years later.

Australian military history tells us of the courage, sacrifice and commitment of the Anzac forces but, in this First World War centenary period, let it never be forgotten that the humble horse from Australia also played a very significant role and displayed similar characteristics as the mate upon their back.

Lest we forget.

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